There’s an argument to be made that all you really need for a halfway decent summer action movie is Jason Statham and something for Jason Statham to punch. Any film that fulfils those basic criteria can’t be all bad. In The Meg, Statham’s target is a 70ft prehistoric shark, or megalodon, hitherto imprisoned under an icy barrier of hydrogen sulphide in an ocean realm deeper than the Mariana Trench. It’s tempting to assume that all fin flicks are direct descendants of the big daddy of them all, Jaws. But The Meg shares as much DNA with the Godzilla tradition of the monster from the deep, awakened by mankind’s hubris and now chucking around submarines like a dog with a chew-toy.
It’s an enjoyable romp, certainly. It’s just a pity that, having secured two such promising key ingredients as Statham and a giant dinosaur fish, the film-makers don’t do more with them. The screenplay feels as though it was assembled from an action-movie dialogue bingo card. In the first 10 minutes alone we get “There’s something out there!”, “Oh my God!”, “We got this!” and “What have you done?”. Statham is the kind of movie star who sweats neat charisma, but in the role of deep-water rescue specialist Jonas Taylor, he is left all at sea by the banality of some of his lines.
The film certainly gets its money’s worth out of the monster shark – we get numerous thrilling shots of it hurtling towards the camera with the voracious, dead-eyed determination of a Kardashian, and plenty more of the gaping maws of doom looming up behind unwitting kids and animals. However, there’s a slightly shoddy, slapdash attitude to scale that rather undermines its monster-movie credibility.
While we’re on the subject of credibility, there are issues. Retired from the hero business, Jonas finds himself recruited to rescue a disabled submersible launched from a hi-tech marine research station. He saves all but one life. Head researcher Zhang (Winston Chao) warns against celebrating: the operation was not a success, he cautions, “not for science”. Well, quite. Science is definitely the loser in a film that posits that a massive prehistoric shark the size of an oligarch’s yacht can zoom up to surface level from a depth of more than 10,000 meters and not explode into shark tartare from the change in pressure. There are other questions. If it exists in the permanent inky blackness of deep sea, why does it have eyes? Why is it attracted to a recording of whale song when it can’t possibly have encountered a whale at the depth at which it lives?
It’s not quite Sharknado or Mega-shark Versus Giant Octopus level, but The Meg is certainly on the sillier end of the big, dumb shark-movie spectrum. And for world-class stupidity, the crack teams of researchers, divers and assorted megalodon fodder are more than deserving of their place on the bottom of the food chain. One particularly moronic plan involves a wet-suited Statham sneaking up on the monster creature with a harpoon gun because “it probably won’t notice just one man”. Until that man shoots it, of course. There follows a joyfully over-the-top set piece that uses Statham as a human fly-fishing lure.
Another memorably meaty sequence unfolds in a beach resort so crowded with bathers in rubber rings, the sea looks like a giant bowl of Fruity Cheerios. The Meg rocks up to the breakfast buffet, chomping through jet skis and a panicking man in a zorb.
Ultimately, the film can play fast and loose with the laws of deep-water biology all it wants and still be carried by the jaunty charm of its lead actor. Like Dwayne Johnson, Statham is a persuasive action star who is also in on the joke of being an action star. It’s perhaps the key to his appeal. That and the upper-body muscle definition. But what’s harder to bridge is the lack of chemistry between Statham and co-star Li Bingbing, who plays Suyin, the daughter of Zhang, and Jonas’s potential love interest. They are so disparate, it’s almost as though they’re in two separate films – his a bantering geezer-v-fish lark, hers a fraught family melodrama. And while I understand that Hollywood needs to court the lucrative Chinese market to survive, this kind of tonal mashup attempts to serve all audiences but ultimately pleases none.